Thursday, September 17, 2015

Communal Scrub-A-Dub

By Jeff Burns
Roman Baths by Giovanni Paolo Pannini
Communal bathing has been an important part of many cultures around the word for millennia.  The earliest public baths discovered by archaeologists were in the Indus River Valley city of Mohenjo-Daro, which was built in the third millennium BC.  The ancient Romans built bathhouses on the frontiers as they expanded their empire.   Communal bathing was and is a vital part of Japanese culture, and the sauna culture still thrives in Scandinavia. Not only did the practice meet a need for cleanliness and develop a reputation for having healing properties, but baths were also often an important part of rituals and religion, and they were an important part of building a spirit of community. 

(L)Ruins of an ancient Roman bath in Greece, showing the heated floor system. By Janmad (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons; (R) Virtual Historical Reconstruction of Roman Baths in Weisenberg Germany "Cyark Weissenburg Reconstruction" by CyArk - CyArk. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -
Over time, however, public bathing facilities diminished in western Europe and the United States  as private bathing facilities became more commonly available, and, in some cases, bathhouses came to be associated with brothels and other illicit behavior.  However, the modern spa boom could mean a welcome resurgence.

My first experience of a traditional bath house was in Baden-Baden Germany several years ago when I was traveling in Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic.  There is a communal bathing tradition in all those countries, but Baden-Baden literally meaning “bathing-bathing”, is legendary.  Roman troops once bathed in the warm mineral springs as early as the reign of Emperor Hadrian when the settlement was known as Aquae.  Later, royalty from across Europe took advantage of the supposedly curative waters.  Mark Twain visited on his famous European tour, immortalized in his works Innocents Abroad and “A Tramp Abroad.” In fact, the very spa he visited, Friedrichsbad , still operates, little changed from the days of his visit. Of Friedrichsbad, Twain wrote, Here at the Friedrichsbad you lose track of time within 10 minutes and track of the world within 20....”

Friedrichsbad stil practices the traditional bathing rules.  There is a 17 step ritual, with the steps consisting of baths and saunas of various temperatures, hot to cold, wraps, and a vigorous  body scrup with soap and a hard-bristled brush.  The bather is nude for all these steps, and men and women are segregated, except for a common pool which is optional.  All this takes place in the original structure, built in the late 1800s and beautifully decorated with tiles and frescoes, just as it was when Twain visited. 
(from website )
I’ve also enjoyed similar experiences in the U.S. a few times.  Hot Springs Arkansas was named for the springs first enjoyed by Native Americans.  As settlers moved west, they discovered the benefits and pleasures, and the town became a southern resort city, famous for horse racing, casinos, and gangsters in the 1920s.  The downtown business district was lined with luxurious bathhouses which thrived.  Business later fell off, however, and the downtown district is now a national historic district.  There are still several modern spas that use the springs in their treatment, but only one still in operation and doing it the traditional way, the Buckstaff BathHouse on Historic Bathhouse Row ( ).  Sexes are segregated here as well, and there are several steps in your visit.  The bather is greeted by an attendant who takes him through the experience, starting with a soak in a huge tub filled with spring water at about 100 degrees.  Then, the bather goes through a sitz bath, a cold shower, a sauna, and a wrap, with massage and other services optional.

(from )
My most recent experience was closer to home at Jeju Sauna in Duluth, Georgia ( ).  Jeju is a traditional Korean bath/spa experience, popular with Asians and non-Asians alike.  In the gender-segregated locker room bathing area, there are showers, sinks, a hot tub, medium tub, icy cold tub, wet sauna, dry sauna, infrared light drying area, and body scrub and acupressure massage tables.  From there, you can dress in the t-shirt and shorts provided and go into the common, mixed gender area. There, you will find a pool, a Korean restaurant, and large sauna huts and rooms.  Each of these saunas is constructed of a different material like gold and silver, jade, charcoal, salt, clay, and ice. Some are hot, some are not.  Each material is touted to have different therapeutic benefits from which to choose.  Foot reflexology and other services are also offered.  Admission is $25 (other services additional) and good for 24 hours, so some people actually opt to spend the night at Jeju instead of a hotel.

All images from  Salt room, Jade Room, Bath area, outside of Salt Room

Whether you’re traveling or you have an establishment in your hometown, consider trying this experience.  If you’re a little squeamish about the nudity, there are some facilities that allow or even require bathing suits.  However, once you dive in, pun intended, it really isn’t much of an issue.  Check out TripAdvisor or other travel and review sites and prepare for hours of relaxation, while enjoying an historic tradition as old as civilization itself.  I look forward to trying Russian and Turkish baths in future travels.